Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Most Horrible First U.S. Experience--but the Most Wonderful Homecoming

When in the taxicab pre-paid by Toni from the hotel to the airport in Sofia, the look in Stephen's eyes was eloquent enough to show that he was trying to absorb every single bit of his country so as to keep it fresh in his memories. I wish I could have told him how very proud of him I was, and that he would have some opportunity to visit his wodnerful homeland some time in the future. (I don't really know when I'll be able to afford that, though.) During the flights from Sofia to Vienna and from Vienna to D.C., Stephen kept awake all the time. He was not scared of planes at all, but his mind was full of thoughts and emotions. Our fellow passenger on our second flight, a major in the U.S. Army, was surprised that he was "not shy at all." Everything went fine, and we had pleasant flights with pleasant aircraft personnel. I will clarify that we were flying with Austrian Airlines.
In the taxicab, before going down at the Sofia airport. Stephen looks much younger than he really is, doesn't he?

That thoughtful, already nostalgic face at the Sofia airport
The plane was about to take off--and he was not scared at all.

At the airport in Vienna

During all the flight from Vienna to Washington Dulles, Stephen surpirsed our fellow passenger regarding how sociable and self-confident he was, and watched movies and played games without ever closing his eyes at all.

Stilll smiling (that was before landing in U.S.)
When Stephen and I landed on U.S. soil at Washingon Dulles Interantional Airport, located in Chantilly, VA, a real nightmare was waiting for us. To start with, the immigration officer who cleared Stephen's papers was the very first person who did not congratulate me on the wondrous event of having a new son. That was not the important issue, though. When I asked that immigration officer when we'd get Stephen's proof of U.S. citizenship, his answer was that they did not give U.S. citizenship, and that I'd have to take care of that on my own. He made it very clear that Stephen was being admitted as a permanent resident. I tried to remember and apply what I myself say in my etiquette book when you have to deal with people like that, and very politely pointed out to him that, unless I was mistaken, my understanding as an immigration attorney was that Stephen was arriving with an R-3 visa, which means immediate U.S. citizenship. The officer told me to talk to a supervisor, who happened to be right there. Well, the supervisor had a little larger dosage of goodwill, but still did not know the answer. He made a call, and after waiting for several minutes on the phone for a third person, who obviously didn't know either, to check that matter, told me that we would not get any proof of citizenship on the spot, but Stephen's naturalization certificate would arrive in the mail, retroactive to the day of arrival. That was all right--but had meant wasting some precious time when you have connecting flights.

Then, as the very kind special services lady from India asked a gate operator whether or not she was taking us the right way, his best answer was, "Get in, get in," as if meaning "don't bother me with questions." She tried to tell him that it was a transfer, but still all the man would say was, "Get in, get in."

And, as we went in, we ended up in the final destination terminal as opposed to the transfer one--where our luggage had been sent. The special services lady made a call, and tried to make the person on the other end understand that we risked missing our flight to San Diego. Nothing to do: unless we cleared customs with all our luggage and checked it in again, we would not fly at all.

Well, it was a matter of waiting, and worrying, for some longer time, but finally our two suitcases and Stephen's wheelchair showed up on the conveyor belt at the terminal where we were. Time was tight, but it stilll looked like if we rushed, we'd be able to make it. The special services lady started a full-speed trip towards the departure gate. I never had asthma, but at that moment I was panting out of breath.

Finally we arrived to the gate. There the TSA officer looked at our boarding passes--and both were in my name!!! I will never forget the evil, disgusting, offensive smurk on that man's face. He would have been an excellent candidate to play the part of a Nazi officer in a WWII movie. That's exactly how he looked. I tried to explain to him that Stephen had not closed his eyes one single minute during the two international flights--that he was eagerly waiting to meet his new family, and his new family was eagerly waiting to meet him. It was to no avail. He would not board us. Period. All we could do was to go downstairs to the United ticket counter and get Stephen's boarding pass re-issued.

We rushed again--only to meet a woman with long blonde hair at the ticket counter who was as nasty as the TSA man upstairs had been. She could have re-issued Stephen's boarding pass in no time--but refused to do it. It looked like she enjoyed saying, "It's too late. You're not flying." As I tried to reason with her, she just told me, "I'm done talking with you." Stephen was upset--and yet able to hold his tears. He did not want to cry. And he succeeded--but I did not. Tears were coming to my eyes, as I feared that all the discomfort, stress, and tension of the moment could somehow damage the strong bonding we had already built. It was perfectly understandable how he might have felt: It's really distressing for a little boy to arrive to a whole new country and find so many horrible people--knowing that such place would be his new country from then on!
I was really terrified that those horrible people we had met at the first U.S. airport might have adversely affected Stephen's trust in me.

A brave little boy trying to look O.K.--but not feeling O.K. at all

I tried to speak to other members of the United staff--but none seemed willing to help. They would not even call a supervisor for me. One employee finally did call for a supervisor--without saying how extremely urgent the matter was. Finally, another ticket counter employee showed me who a supervisor was. He was standing right there. The supervisor had a little better disposition, and agreed to go upstairs back to the gate with us in order to tell the TSA people that it was all right with him and with United to board us because Stephen's passport clearly showed that he had cleared immigration.

Again the awful TSA man. Again the same repugnant smurk on his face. I asked him what he had found laughable, and he replied I was shouting at him--which was not true. He kept on refusing to let us board our plane. Finally, a second TSA decided to call their supervisor, and see what she said. The TSA supervisor decided to let us board--but by the time we cleared through the metal detectors and arrived to the gate, it was too late. The gate was already closed. Was the plane still there? I approached the nearest United desk, and asked the lady there if she could please make a call to see if by any chance the plane was still there and the gate could be open. Unbelievably, she also refused to help. Stephen was desperately trying not to cry. I could not control myself, and did cry.

At that moment, God sent two people without whom it would have been sheer disaster. First a family we had met two days before at the U.S. Consulate in Sofia happened to be there. They bought a bottle of water and M&M's for Stephen. Then, miraculously, another United employee started speaking with Stephen in Bulgarian. Yes, she was from Bulgaria. She helped very, very much, and even purchased something for Stephen from one of the shops as a present for him. The only way to make it to San Diego that same night would be by connecting flights in Denver. Instead of arriivng at 8:25, we'd be arriving at 11:10--but at least we'd have our first supper all together--a very late supper, though, in the early morning hours.

Catherine met us at the airport--and Catherine's magic way immediately won Stephen over. As we were going to the elevator, Catherine whispered in my ear, "I love him soooooooo much already!!!" Actually, she had already loved him with all her heart from that very first day when she had seen his picture in the RR photlisting.

I was so exhausted that when given the information about where to claim our luggage the following day if they did not call us before, I checked with the employee where the telephone number was. She told me, "Here is our phone number--and you'd be able to see it better if you turned the paper around." I was trying to read the paper upside down and had not even noticed it!!!

The homecoming Catherine, Gerard, and Warren had prepared for Stephen was amazing, awesome--super, as they'd say in Bulgarian, with ballons pouring down on him as he entered his new and forever home. Well, the actual home won't be forever, as we're moving very soon--but what rreally makes a home will be forever and ever.

Stephen is extremely playful, and in just a few moments, it seemed he had been with us all our lives. The only thing that remind us it was not since ages ago is the language barrier. Stephen is a very fast learner, though--and the twins learned A LOT of Bulgarian already.

Catherine, Gerard, and Warren are always ready and willing to do whatever it takes to help with their younger siblings and around the house. Whether it is helping with hygene needs, preparing supper, scanning some paperwork for me on the computer, or cleaning up a mess, they're always there.

One very nice little incident was this. Stephen got fascinated by a toy car with lights and sounds that Thomas had always liked very much. My mom tried to tell Thomas that Stephen had never had those toys before--and Thomas gave Stephen his car. Then, he came to me and asked me, "Mom, can you buy another car for me for Christmas?" And tears started rolling down Thomas' cheeks. As soon as Stephen saw the tears, he gave the car back to Thomas. A moment after, they were both on the floor, sharing that toy car, and making it go from one to the other.

The bonding with Stephen cannot be stronger--and that goes for all of us, and for him with all of us. Like when Thomas and Nicholas arrived home back in mid 2008, I want to thank Catherine, Warren, and Gerard for having been the instruments of a new miracle of love.

Stephen is so very bright, has such a shining, radiant personality, is so self-confident and so boyish and yet so very loving, so very playful, and so very cuddly that you simply fail to even notice his wheelchair--and BTW, he has a really noble and self-assured attitude in the face of his physical challenge.

There is only one problem, though--not for us, but for all those who know us: I do brag a lot about my kids--and now can be even more insufferable than before, with one more child to brag about!!!
When Catherine met Stephen for the first time at the San Diego Airport. After only a moment, she'd whisper in my ear, "I love him already!!!" Actually, she already loved him with all her heart since many months before--they all did!

Both my mom and Thomas claiming their time with Stephen--as we had just entered the house

Catherine, Gerard, and Warren had prepared a wonderful homecoming, including a bunch of balloons--and all the love in the world!!!

Our first family picture as a family of eight. That was in the early morning hours of Sunday, Dec. 18, 2010.

Our very first "dinner" all together--if it can be called dinner at about 2:00 a.m. in the morning (on 12/18/10)

Friday, December 17, 2010

An update that needs to be given

Maybe this is not the moment for blogging, but just to relax and enjoy the very strong bonding with Stephen---yet I cannot avoid posting that things cannot be better than they are. . . even better than my wildest expectations.

Although from the very fist day back in August I had been able to realize that he's very loving and able to make very solid attachments, he's so boyish that I never imagined he'd be so very cuddly as he is. During this trip his attitude for the first days had been friendly and polite, and yet there seemed to be some slight inner reservations. But on Thursday afternoon, after we were back from his medicals and the Consular appointment, it was a whole transformation, with an even more shining, more radiant attitude than during my first trip. He had been always playful, but became even more playful, with a new spark in his eyes. and much more love to give than I could even expect. He keeps on hugging and kissing me over and over again. He has even kissed my hand when I had it close to his face.

During the first two days at the hotel it had not been very easy to have him listen to some ESL for Children videos on You-Tube. From the moment we were done with the Consulate, he became extremely motivated to learn. And he's a really fast learner. In just one day he learned the Roman alphabet up to the letter 'r', and can type the alphabet with almost no mistakes. He can type his name, and can almost handwrite it. He perfectly understood me about the tongue position for the number 'three' not to sound like 'tree.'

He's trustworthy and incapable of doing anything wrong because of being upset. For instance, after I got his passport with the visa, I showed it to him, but when he wanted to hold on to it and keep on browsing it, I needed to take it away. He got very upset and threw himself on his bed--but on the bed he found one of my earrings, which I had not noticed missing, and no matter how upset he was, he immediately and spontaneously gave it to me.

He is totally full of life, has a very noble attitude in the face of his physical challenges, and there is something really special about him. I'm not talking about 'special needs.' Actually, he's so bright, so boyish, and so self-assured that you cannot think of him at all as a special needs child. As a matter of fact, his personality is so sparkling that you cannot even notice his wheelchair.

At the hotel restaurant in Sofia

During the immigration medicals

At the hotel lobby, after everything had been done. That's a picture that says it all, isn't it?

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Trip to Lukovit. My first days with Stephen.

On Monday, Dec. 13, 2010, Toni picked me up at 7:00 a.m. at the Budapest Hotel in Sofia, to go to Lukovit. The BIG day had arrived!!! As usual, I was not ready. As a matter of fact, it was not until the very last moment that I finally figured out which present would be for whom.

At Lukovit, I was allowed to give the singing duck to Philip and the big cuddly monkey to Maximilian--and I had a chance to see Philip for the first time. He's really cute. The first thing he did was to kiss his duck! Maximilian was delighted with the monkey, and was very verbal. Of course, I did not understand what he said--except for, "Super!" The look in his eyes is engraved in my heart, and will inspire all of us to make it through all that is involved in getting those two little ones home  as well ASAP--which, in our case, will be much more than a simple adoption process (as if any adoption process could be simple!) In our case it'll also mean a move from one coast to the other. Yet, I'll leave that for a future post.

Philip simply loved his duck!!! I don't think the duck's batteries survived more than one day.

When will all the family be able to hug them?
Stephen was tense at the beginning, but started to warm up in a short time. Far from being a negative thing, his initial stiff attitude is a positive one, as he was saying good-bye to everyone and everything he knew and loved--and that shows he enormous capability to make solid attachments.

Some very important figures in Stephen's first eight years of life--and, as most of you will recognize, to the left someone (Toni Vladimirova) to whom our family will be indebted forever.

A moment loaded with mixed emotions for Stephen, as he was saying good-bye to everyone and everything he knew and loved, to start a very promising yet still totally unknown new life with his new family--his family forever.

On our way to Sofia, though, at one point he put his hand on top of mine, and kept it there for a long time.

I knew that at the beginning of this year he had gotten scalded with hot water. Due to his total lack of sensitivity on his legs, he had not felt the pain, and had gotten severely burnt. Yet, I could not imagine the extent of those burns until the first day at the hotel. Even during my first visit I had not been able to see how horrible the burnt sites looked because his clothes covered them. My first thought was that he might need skin grafts. I looked it up online, and apparently I was right. The sores are now closed, and there is no bleeding or draining, but the aftermath of those burns still looks awful, terrible, horrible. Those must have been not third-, but fourth-degree burns.  How didn't anyone realize until the damage was so pervasive? There are no major aesthetic concerns because the worst sites are covered by clothes. His left leg and foot look badly burnt also, but that couldn't matter less. On the contrary, those scars make him a little hero. Yet--can such mistreated skin cause any further problems later on in life?

A touching moment was when I was applying a healing cream to his burn scars--and he stretched his right hand to stroke my face for a second with his fingertips.

It is also remarkable how very fast he learns to trust. When on Tuesday morning for the very first time I was about to fill the tub for his bath, he was trying to tell me something. Although inside me I knew what he was meaning to tell me,  in order to make sure I put him through to the front desk over the phone, for him to tell them, so that they could translate it for me. I was right: he wanted to remind me that the water needed to be only a little warm, and not hot at all, so as not to burn his skin any more. Although he could not understand me as I don't speak his language, I assured him that we'd take very good care of him and he would not get burned again. When this morning, Wednesday, Dec. 15, I filled out the bathtub for him again, he did not find it necessary to remind me of anything: he knew I would check the water temperature for him.

Lunch at the Budapest Hotel, in Sofia

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Posting from Sofia - Soon I'll be hugging Stephen again!

In the end I made it! Without all the help I got, I wouldn't have made it, though. Even though having a math final on Monday, on Friday, 12/10/10, Warren spent an inordinate amount of time doing the artwork for our Christmas letter, which I very much wanted to get ready before my departure, on the e-vite for Stephen's 9th birthday (and his birthday at home), and helping with many other last-minute things, while Gerard took care of Thomas and Nicholas. Catherine ended up buying most of the clothes for Stephen by going to WalMart in the middle of the night, after being to a parochial Young Adults meeting. Besides, although I did not intend to buy boots for me, she went ahead and did buy a pair of boots for me to wear. And she bought a travel-size tube of an almost magical hand cream, thinking that I tend to get badly chapped skin with the cold.

Despite her age, my mom spent the whole night up in her wheelchair, to help in what she could--and to worry for us, and to pray for everything to get done on time. Once again, her mind is still much better than mine!

In the early afternoon, an envelope had arrived in the mail: it was a $1,000.00 check from our priest, written not from parochial funds, but from his personal account, to help with the expenses.

I flew from San Diego to Washington - Dulles, from there to Vienna, and from Vienna to Sofia, where Toni was waiting for me at the airport. I was so tired that at the airport in Vienna I got awakened by a loudspeaker calling, "Godone-Maresca, Flight to Sofia!" All the other passengers were gone already. There was a second bus waiting for me, to take me to board my plane. Thanks God that I did wake up in the end!!!

Now it's 5:10 a.m. local time (Sofia). In two hours, Toni (the wonderful, amazing Bulgarian attorney) is picking me up to go to Lukovit to get Stephen--forever!!!!

God bless everyone!

"Please, Mom, can you ask Warren to put Nicholas on my back?"

A couple of weeks ago, Gerard and Warren had just finished serving at the 10:30 Sunday Mass at Mary, Star of the Sea, and Warren ran to Nicholas--and Nicholas ran to Warren. Actually, there is absolutely nothing wrong with Nicholas' legs. The reason why he falls down so often is a problem with balance due to his c.p. The twins try to spare him the bad memories that the use of his walker brings back to him. Those memories go back to his first seven years of life in Haiti, where the other kids at the orphanage used to make fun of him because of his walker.

Gerard and Warren are always ready and willing to carry Nicholas. No matter how much taller Nicholas grows almost by the day, the twins still enjoy carrying him around. It is not that they do it when there is no other way out. They reeeeeally want to do it. This can be summarized in Gerard's request to me, while Warren kept on keeping Nicholas: "Please, Mom, can you ask Warren to put Nicholas on my back?"                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               

Friday, December 10, 2010

(. . .) And for Thomas, a toothbrush named Thomas!

In early September, Thomas and Nicholas underwent extensive dental work under general anesthesia--which, of course, was not covered by insurance, the same as the white amalgam. The only kind that was covered was the totally obsolete and rather hazardous mercury-laced silver amalgam. For a very short time, as the baby teeth are getting loose one by one, the silver amalgam may be--but for the permanent teeth, never!!! In the end, the out-of-pocket cost of the procedure was $2,637.00! Yikes! Ugh! Ouch! (More painful than dental work!)

Yet, no matter what,  neither Thomas nor Nicholas likes tooth brushing very much. Getting them to brush their teeth used to be a problem--of which, I must confess, Catherine, Gerard, or Warren took care for me.  It used to be "catch me if you can" time. Then, Catherine had a brilliant idea. She went from store to store until she found a rotating toothbrush with Thomas the Train on it. Nicholas got one with Spiderman. That made the trick!!! Since that day, they both became very motivated to brush their teeth the right way.

Roses With No Thorns

The title for this entry suddenly came to my mind two days ago, on December 8, the day of the Immaculate Conception--and the twins' 14th birthday!

I can foresee what Gerard and Warren are going to say about my title, though--that it'd be wonderful if about a girl, but not if referring to two young men. Well, Catherine is included also, of course. There is absolutely no thorn at all about being their mother. There is absolutely no thorn at all about getting all the compliments about them while simultaneously getting so much help from them. There is absolutely no thorn in seeing so much devotion, so much selflessness, so much love.

Quite often I think that it's not fair that get all the credit even though the three of them do much more than I myself could ever have done.

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